Barely a word is spoken in the first twelve minutes of End of the Century (Fin de Siglo) (★★★★☆), the sensual, Barcelona-set debut feature by Argentinian writer-director Lucio Castro. The camera wanders the city alongside solo traveler Ocho (Juan Ballerini), quietly absorbing the city’s sights and culture, whether people-watching from the balcony of his Airbnb, or on meandering walks along the seaside and among the pines topping Montjuïc.
A stranger in a Kiss t-shirt, passing through the square below Ocho’s apartment, catches his eye. Later, he and “Kiss” cruise each other on the city beach. Their first hookup is as inevitable as it is hot, and brief. But Ocho and the stranger, Javi (Ramón Pujol), a Barcelona native visiting from his current home in Berlin, exchange numbers in hopes of a future encounter that soon materializes. And the movie starts to make up for its wordless beginning, as the two travelers traverse the city, engaging in that dance of conversation, casual but defining, that marks the first stirrings of romance.
Romance might not be where their hookup, and this film, are headed, though. Ocho, an Argentinian poet who makes his living in marketing in New York, says he’s just out of a 20-year relationship, and Javi also isn’t interested in more than a casual thing before he returns to life in Berlin. Yet, their attraction is undeniable, as is the chemistry between Ballerini and Pujol, be it while sharing an impromptu sunset picnic, or during the film’s steamy sex scenes. Castro’s script conjures scenarios that could be ripped from porn or Playgirl fantasies — like, for instance, summoning a willing, good-looking passerby up to your Airbnb at a moment’s notice — but the direction and performances convey a natural, open sexuality that feels tender and authentic.
The movie coaxes out possibilities for the lovers’ future, or at least future hookups, then swerves suddenly, backtracking 20 years to Ocho and Javi’s past, to reveal that the two supposed strangers actually had met once before. It’s 1999, and they both happen to be in Barcelona. On the eve of the new century, a good portion of the modernized world is consumed with the fear that every computer on earth will shut down, and civilization might grind to a pause, at the moment date-clocks should strike 01-01-00.
Future, hopefully wiser generations might look back and laugh at the absurd Y2K scare, but Castro makes smart use of that singular moment in history as a legitimate trigger for contemplating transition. Even a realist like Ocho, who doesn’t take the hysteria seriously, might consider how life can change with the turn of the century. He might wonder whether he wants to dive into a relationship or jet around the world as unattached as can be, or maybe marry a woman like his friend Sonia (Mía Maestro). Ocho is privileged with freedom and potential when he meets Javi in 1999. His actions that weekend make all the difference in their paths going forward.
Shifting in time again, End of the Century contemplates more than one possible path for Ocho and Javi from the end of the 20th-century until now. The film signals those alternative shifts through subtle — sometimes too subtle — shifts in music or time of day, or by altering details like the contents of the apartment refrigerator. Each scene and frame rewards close observation, as the film as a whole also gains upon repeat viewing. The love story is simple but it captures the depth of possibility that can underscore even the most offhand decision to leave or stay, to hold back or act.
Passages throughout are as dialogue-free as the opening, and equally picturesque, courtesy of cinematographer Bernat Mestres. When the pair do get to talking, they can go on, but their rapport is inviting, and their concerns universal. Ballerini and Pujol aren’t charged to do much heavy dramatic lifting, but rather achieve a warmth and ease that still is deceptively hard to create on-camera. Debating, kissing, or drunkenly dancing around the apartment, Ocho and Javi make good hangout company, as twentysomething dreamers and 20 years later, for the movie’s musing look at what was, what is, and what might have been.
End of the Century is not rated, and opens Friday, Nov. 8 at Landmark’s E Street Cinemas. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com/washington-d-c.